In April, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a directive to allow the early release of individuals in state prisons in order to slow the spread of coronavirus. Since then, the Board of Corrections has certified more than 1,200 individuals eligible for release from Arkansas prisons. So far, only about a quarter have been released.
As an expert on infectious diseases and criminal justice, I strongly support safely reducing the prison population as a critically needed step in our fight against the continued spread of the virus.
Overcrowded prisons are breeding grounds for covid-19. The measures we are taking to protect ourselves in the community--such as washing our hands regularly and keeping six feet apart from other people--are not possible in the prison setting. People held in prisons live in close quarters, breathe the same recycled air, and do not have ready access to soap and water. Hand sanitizer is contraband in prison because it contains alcohol. Also, it is important to keep in mind that prisons are not closed settings. Correctional staff enter and exit every day and, in some cases, corrections staff have introduced the virus into prisons.
Once introduced, the virus cannot be contained behind prison walls. Guards and other corrections workers come home each day and risk spreading the virus to their families and to the surrounding community. The horrifying truth is that this is already happening: The Cummins Unit prison in Grady is one of the 10 largest clusters of coronavirus cases in the country. Lincoln County, where Cummins is located, now has the most infected people of any county in Arkansas, and the highest infection rate in the state. In fact, Lincoln County now has the third highest covid-19 infection rate in the nation.
According to the Arkansas Department of Correction, as of late last month at least 58 facility security staff have tested positive for covid-19. Infected corrections staff are especially concerning in rural areas, where there are fewer doctors and hospitals. Releasing individuals from prisons, which will allow those who remain more room to socially distance themselves, is the only way to protect the public health--inside and outside prisons.
Now is the time to take a step back and reflect on our collective policies of mass incarceration in our nation and in our state. Over the past 30 years, in Arkansas and across the U.S., both Democrats and Republicans have attempted to address crime through harsh, overly lengthy sentences, rather than prevention and rehabilitation.
In 1983, Arkansas held 5,743 people in jails and prisons. By 2015, that number had exploded to 23,632--an increase of 311 percent. Many people who are in our correctional facilities are still confined when they are old, infirm, and no longer pose a threat to public safety.
In the past few years, policymakers and members of the public have begun to rethink the draconian policies which have contributed to mass incarceration, including considering alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenses and less use of long sentences.
An approach to criminal justice that places more focus on forgiveness, the possibility of redemption, and respecting the value of human life may be more in keeping with our state's values. Indeed, such an approach would appeal to and be consistent with the Judeo-Christian ethos that the majority of the citizens in our state adhere to.
A better system would address the causes of crime, including childhood poverty and abuse and neglect; divert low-level offenders away from correctional facilities and into treatment programs for addiction and mental illness; and provide more support for people leaving prison and re-entering their communities so that they could succeed.
Among other things, this means helping people start meaningful careers, such as plumbers and electricians, rather than dead-end jobs. These approaches recognize the humanity of people and help them get back on the right track. They also allow people the opportunity to take personal responsibility for their successful reintegration into society.
Governor Hutchinson and the Parole Board have done the right thing by releasing this first group of individuals from prison, allowing them to avoid a possible death sentence imposed by covid-19, and slowing the spread of the virus into our communities, particularly those in rural parts of our state.
Because of the way the virus spreads, we are in a moment where community health and safety is enhanced, not threatened, by releasing people from prison. The governor's decisive action should be a starting point for the safe release of additional individuals from correctional facilities in our state and for re-imagining what a more compassionate, more effective criminal justice system might look like.
Nickolas Zaller, Ph.D., is a professor at the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UAMS.